Police is Western Australia have accessed private data from the state’s covid-19 check-in app at least twice to aid in a criminal investigation, despite promises the app would only be used by contact tracers. The revelations are likely to make people think twice before using the app, a public health tool that’s compulsory at all retailers, though the mandate is only loosely enforced.
Western Australia, a state of roughly 2.6 million people, launched the SafeWA app in late 2020 to make it easier for contact tracers to track down possible infections after a case of covid-19 has been identified in the community. But there were public promises made by the state government that any information collected by the app would be private.
Police defended use of the data by saying it’s all in the fine print, adding that they’re trying to track down witnesses to the murder of local motorcycle gang leader Nick Martin. An unnamed 34-year-old man has been arrested and charged with the murder, and the accused can’t be named because of a court suppression order that’s not uncommon in Australia.
“I accept that people don’t always read fine print on insurance policies or whatever, and this is a very important principle, but the police have only got information twice out of 240 million transactions and they were exceptional circumstances, and it is lawful,” Western Australia Police Commissioner Chris Dawson told a local radio station.
“Police have a duty to investigate crime,” Dawson continued. “And we’re talking about a man who was shot in a public arena with an allegedly high-powered weapon, and other people were injured.”
Local politicians introduced legislation on Tuesday night to make sure police can’t access the data in the future, but that’s likely cold comfort to any privacy-alert Australians who believed they were doing something for the safety of the community.
“I said we’d like that to stop. The police responded that it’s lawful under the law. We can’t not do things that are lawful under the law,” the state’s top poltiical official Mark McGowan said at a press conference on Wednesday. “Therefore, we decided to legislate to make sure that the situation is made totally clear.”
“You know, there’s arguments on both sides, but I think the most reasonable course forward is to make sure that any information provided cannot be accessed except for contact tracing purposes. The laws will make that absolutely completely clear,” McGowan continued.
McGowan, the rough equivalent to a state’s governor in the U.S., reportedly discovered police were using data from the app back in April, according to Australia’s ABC News.
Australia has fared exceptionally well during the pandemic, with only a few dozen cases of community transmission of the virus over the past year, thanks in large part to highly restricted border controls. Australia’s border controls are so tight that citizens aren’t even allowed to leave the country without a special exemption.
But that same luck has dealt the state and Australia a difficult hand to play. Vaccine hesitancy is exceptionally high because people in Australia don’t feel any sense of urgency to get vaccinated. As a result, Australia’s borders are likely to remain closed for the foreseeable future, as only about 695,000 of Australia’s 25 million residents have been fully vaccinated.
Australians are going to be living with covid for quite some time in one way or another, which means this is the worst possible time for police down under to be undermining public health tools. Good going, Western Australia police.